Diana Diamond: I want to become a Palo Alto city employee | September 20, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 20, 2006

Diana Diamond: I want to become a Palo Alto city employee

by Diana Diamond

I am not surprised, but I am quite disappointed.

Palo Alto city officials once again caved in to union demands. On Oct. 10 the City Council is expected to approve a contract with Service Employees International Union Local 715 that will give some 585-city employees:

A 5.5 percent salary increase.

An additional net 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase next year and net 3 percent the following year.

An improved pension plan -- those who retire at age 55 can get 2.7 percent of their monthly salary for every year that they worked with the city.

A few restrictions on only one of the city's four health plans.

Additional salary increases for some 40 employee classifications.

An expanded bereavement list to now include stepmother, stepfather, niece and nephew.

An increase in orthodontia coverage from $1,500 to $2,000 per year.

Reimbursement of health and gym club memberships through the city's tuition-reimbursement program.

Additional perks such as a $300 reimbursement for walking shoes for utility meter readers and a meal-reimbursement plan for overtime dispatchers -- $10/$15/$20 for breakfast/lunch/dinner.

I don't think I could eat $45 worth of restaurant food in one day and stay awake at work!

I am in support of public employees getting good wages and benefits, but I think the unions have brought these packages completely over the top -- and yet the city gives them what they want.

And now that one union has gotten this increase, the other unions in the city will ask for similar benefits, and temporary workers will want more, and then the managers and the city manager will want higher pay. And then everyone will be happy -- except Palo Alto taxpayers.

Public employee salaries and pensions are causing big financial problems for many cities, and Palo Alto's new contract will not help matters at all. Once one city gives an increase, the unions tell other cities they have to do likewise. And many meekly agree.

"After all, we don't want the union to go on a strike, do we?" some Palo Alto council members have told me. Others have said, "If we don't give them increases, they will go and work at another city."

Nonsense. Most cities are letting go of employees, not hiring new ones. And part of the reason for some of the layoffs is these huge public-employee expenses, for both salaries and retirement benefits. As for a strike? It could be an opportunity for a bit of house cleaning. We might even be able to find what we could do without.

Remember, this is a city that has a 9/80 plan -- employees work nine nine-hour days and get every other Friday off, giving them 26 three-day weekends. That's in addition to a couple of weeks of vacation and at least 10 paid holidays a year.

Local 715 has a Web site (www.pachapterseiu715.org), and some of the other victories it proclaims it just achieved is that it "successfully fought off management takeaway proposal(s) to delete the ability of workers to remove disciplinary records from their files after three years; ... to institute an 18-month probationary period for public safety dispatchers"; and finally, "... to require proof of death for payment of bereavement leave."

That sounds to me like the city management was worried that employees could claim a relative dies and get time off. Thanks to the union, the city lost on that one -- it does not have a right to say to employees that you need to prove to us that your relative has really died.

These SEIU employees received a 5.5 percent increase this year; the national average for all workers is a 3.5 percent salary increase. And most workers in private industry do not get pensions anymore -- they have to chip in their own money to pay for their own retirement plans. Not true for our city employees.

In Palo Alto now, workers will be able to retire at age 55 with 2.7 percent of their monthly salary for life. So if a city utility worker makes $100,000 a year and retires after 10 years of service, he or she would receive $27,000 a year retirement. After 30 years of work, he would be getting $81,000 a year. Not too shabby.

The city will also be paying out full health, dental, vision, life insurance, long-term disability and dependent care assistance programs for retirees for the rest of their lives. If someone retires at 55, that could easily mean 30 years of benefits.

Taxpayers are simply not going to be able to absorb these increases in public employee costs. A hefty percentage of the general revenue funds in Palo Alto are going to employee benefits, which is the reason we have no money for new libraries, road repair, a new police station or fixing up the creek.

I would have preferred if the city and the union looked at the total compensation package. If workers get a salary increase, then forget about a pension benefit increase. As Ron Pilenzo, a top HR professional for five decades, pointed out in an on-line column, historically public sector employees have traded higher pay for job security and good retirement benefits -- but now they are getting both and it's bankrupting the system, especially here in California.

On the other hand, after looking at all the packages and perks, I think I want to be a city employee. You, too?

Diana Diamond is a Palo Alto resident. Her e-mail is Diana@DianaDiamond.com.


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